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Using Live Plants in Your Home Aquarium

Updated on December 22, 2013

Personal Opinion

I will start this off by saying that using live or fake plants is a matter of personal opinion. Some hobbyists like the wider variety of colors fake plants offer. Some hobbyists like the realistic look that live plants can give a tank. As fake plants require very little care, occasionally you may need to remove algae from them, this article will discuss live plants.

Not everyone has a green thumb. There, I said it. Personally, I am not the greatest with live plants, but my boyfriend seems to have a knack for getting them growing and keeping them healthy. That being said using live plants in your tank can mean more work for you. Especially if those live plants bring in snails.

Live plants in an aquarium
Live plants in an aquarium

Wide Variety

There are many different kinds of live plants you can have in your home aquarium. If you can think of it chances are pretty high that there is an aquatic plant that will meet your needs. Some plants resemble grass, other have giant leafs, some grow bigs, and others are small and bushy.

Not all aquatic plants are green. Some have red or even brown leaves. Mixing these plants with green ones can be a nice pop of color for your tank.

Not all plants need to be rooted into your substrate. Sometimes fish will pull a plant free of the gravel or sand and it will float up to the surface. For some plants this is just fine, and they will continue to grow and be healthy. For others this could be a death sentence.

The Nitrogen Cycle simplified
The Nitrogen Cycle simplified | Source
The basic idea of photosynthesis
The basic idea of photosynthesis | Source

Benefits of Live Plants

There are a lot of benefits to using live plants in a home aquarium. Plants use fish waste to survive. When a fish respires it puts CO2 (carbon dioxide) into the tank water. Typically the CO2 is off-gassed when it reaches the surface or when the water goes through your tank's filtration. However, if you have a smaller tank or a large bioload (the amount of living things in your tank), or just have a tank with a small surface area where water can exchange with air the CO2 will not fully leave your system. This can cause a lot of problems. First it is going to decrease the amount of dissolved oxygen in the tank water. Science 101: only so many gasses can be dissolved in water at one time. If there is a lot of CO2 in the water that means there is less room available for the O2 (breathable oxygen) molecules to dissolve in the water. Live plants will use the CO2 that your fish put off to go through photosynthesis. As an added bonus live plants will give off O2 as a result of photosynthesis! This means that they are not only removing a harmful toxin from your tank they are putting much needed oxygen into the water.

Chances are if you have taken a science class above the middle school level you have heard of the nitrogen cycle. Chances also are that unless you were really interested in science you don't remember too much about the nitrogen cycle. Thankfully there are people, like me, that think this sort of stuff is really cool. The nitrogen cycle can be a bit confusing so I will only go over where the plants are helpful. Fish excrete ammonium, which then breaks down to nitrites, and then further to nitrates. Plants are able to use the ammonium and nitrates to make food and grow. Think of it as the same way you add fertilizer, often animal poop, to your garden to make your plants grow. The only other way you could remove these toxins is to do a water change.

Most fish like a tank with plants. They don't mind if the plants are alive or fake. As long as the fake plants have no sharp points where the fins of the fish could snag they are fine. You don't have that problem with live plants. Happy fish = healthy tank.

The Downsides to Live Platns

Plants can negatively effect the nitrogen cycle just as much as they can help. If a plant dies, or drops some of its leaves, there is now dead organic material at the bottom of your tank. This can be just as bad as leaving extra food in your system. This organic material will start to decay and break down. This is going to release ammonium (NH4+) into your system all over again. To prevent this remove dead plants and any dropped leaves as soon as possible.

If you purchase a live plant at the pet stores there is a very good chance that you also brought home a stowaway. Snails and live plants often go hand in hand. It is not uncommon for a snail or two to be brought into a system on a plant. This can be both good and bad. More algae eaters will help to keep your tank clean. As a bonus many types of fish eat snails so these little guys could be a great free meal for your fishy friends. On the downside snails are hermaphrodites and they reproduce very quickly. Even if you only have one snail if could already be ready to lay its eggs by the time you get home. If you don't have any animals that eat snails in your tank it could soon be overrun by snails. Fun times.

Live plants also require better lighting than just the typical aquarium light. Plants require specific light wave lengths in order to go through photosynthesis. Without these wave lengths the plant will not be able to feed itself and will die. If you cannot spend the extra money for a different light bulb you could always open the blinds and let the natural sunlight to its things. Of course both the lights and the sunlight will increase the algae growth in your tank.

Sometimes a pet store will sell a live plant that is not equally fully aquatic. How will you know when that happens? Simple: when fully submerged for long periods of time it will die. Or you could do some research and become an expert on aquatic plants so that you will know what is and is not a good idea for fish tanks. Personally I don't take it to that extreme, I just closely examine plants at the store. If they are fully submerged and look healthy I will take a chance on them. So far I have not had any problems.

Planted Aquariums

It is becoming trendy to have a planted aquarium. These are tanks that focus heavily on the plants and have a few schools or brightly colored fish to tie everything together. As there isn't a whole lot of bioload in the form of fish there isn't a whole lot of food for the plant. This means you might have to add some extra chemicals to the system to keeps the plants healthy and growing.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Live plants give different kinds of fish a place to feel safeLive plants can make a tank have more of a natural feelEven little dwarf puffers like to hide in plants
Live plants give different kinds of fish a place to feel safe
Live plants give different kinds of fish a place to feel safe
Live plants can make a tank have more of a natural feel
Live plants can make a tank have more of a natural feel
Even little dwarf puffers like to hide in plants
Even little dwarf puffers like to hide in plants

In Conclusion

Live plants can make a home aquarium seem more natural. They will fill in and grow over time, giving the fish ample hiding places. If you are willing to put forth a little effort you can reap some of the benefits of using live plants in your system.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Live plants will need food. If you notice that your plants look dull or aren't growing you might want to try adding some 'plant food' to your system. API has a produce called 'Leaf Zone' that has everything plants need to be healthy.
  • Live plants bought from pet stores often have snails on them. The easiest way to prevent this is to grow the plants from bulbs.
  • Live plants provide hiding places that are completely safe for your fish
  • Some fish and snails will feed on live plants
  • Plants need special lighting, or access to sunlight, in order to go through photosynthesis

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